If you don't want to be spoiled as to the concept of the film, read this later. But if you've seen the trailer, you know what I'm talking about.
Screenwriting hack Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) visits Paris with his disgustingly close-minded fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her equally awful parents. He escapes from them by wandering through the streets of Paris, seeking inspiration for his unwritten novel. But, as these things go in the movies (which I dearly wish would happen in real life), a magical yellow car appears at midnight, transporting him back to the 1920's.
Midnight in Paris has been billed as a return to form for Woody Allen to his classic 70's style. Many of the elements are there, including the jazzy incidentals, langurous architectural long-shots, and scenes of people walking and talking (pretentiously).
I've been in the throes of my Woody Allen marathon, and am up to 1980. Basically, I'm still in the classics, and Midnight in Paris just isn't on their level, especially not in the contemporary scenes. Thankfully, most of the callbacks are to Manhattan, which I don't revere quite as much as many others do.
As with Manhattan, Paris opens with impossibly stylized shots of its featured city, accompanied by narration from the lead character (it's worth pointing out that Owen Wilson, as Gil Pender, does a great Woody Allen impersonation in this movie, but I still wish the Woodster could have time travelled back and cast his younger self).
Like many Woody Allen films (probably all of them), character is revealed through scenes of art appreciation. The Woody Allen character always believes that art is to be enjoyed, not criticized or judged. Art is a wonderful, inexpensive time-pass, and characters are defined whether a) they share that perspective with Allen's character and b) how Allen's character then responds to whatever pretension he then encounters.
So let's look at the scene at Versailles, where Rachel McAdams's Inez is held in thrall to Michael Sheen's incredibly fatuous Professor, and Gil merely hangs slightly back. We are left on our own to observe Paul and Inez being completely revolting, where normally the Allen character would throw in a sharp barb (or gag) that would defuse our disgust.
Superlative barbs in Annie Hall (there's a great take on this scene you ought to read):
Superlative gag in Play it Again, Sam:
He doesn't do either in Manhattan, to be fair, but the genius of Manhattan is that he knows that Diane Keaton's awful in practically every way, but he loves her anyway. That tension drives the movie forward.
Instead, Paris lets its non-Gil characters be utterly despicable without offering us any commentary beyond "look at these people being truly awful, so awful that they have the audacity to correct the tour guide." These scenes are practically intolerable and really drag down the movie.
End result, we can't wait to get out of there and into the 1920's.
THE PAST ISN'T EVEN PAST
Gil's magical yellow car doesn't arrive a moment too soon, sending us back to meet a whole other set of awful people, but people I love very dearly, just as dearly as Gil.
The success of these scenes depended on how well the actors were willing to get into their roles. The Fitzgeralds were fantastic, and my greatest disappointment with this film is that there weren't more scenes with them. Kathy Bates did surprisingly great work as Gertrude Stein, who gives Gil the essential counsel he so desperately needs.
An unexpected joy was the café encounter with Salvador Dali. I think Adrien Brody, in his brief showcase, practically steals the film. His joyous portrayal of Dali bounces perfectly off of incredulous Gil and Dali's two companions. The companions, of course, are Luis Buñuel and Man Ray.
Less successful was how there was wayyyy too much Hemingway, which wasn't helped by the hammy performance. The actor couldn't seem to decide between playing him straight and playing him as Ron Swanson. Particularly grating was his "is anyone up for a fight?" at the Fitzgerald party. The film hammers every Hemingway cliché into the ground, but at least Gil responds with equanimity.
***SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT***
You will notice that I haven't mentioned Marion Cotillard's Adrianna. For what is there there to say of fair Marion? No man could fail to fall in love with her, and the film does not pretend otherwise. Woody Allen, as always, takes the horrible Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché and turns it on its head. Her desires are key to the story, and its her confidence in her desires that leads him to an epiphany. Much like Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night, she is the strong character and he is weak. Only when he sees her that way can he change his life.
This epiphany hits him from three directions: Gertrude Stein finds his characters unbelievable, Hemingway finds them naive, and Cotillard, the living embodiment of a more perfect novel than Gil's, proves them to be flat. And how does she do this? They time travel back to her golden age, the Belle Epoque. Just as Gil idolizes Fitzgerald, she idolizes Degas and Renoir. But she wants to be in that time period because she actually wants to live there. It's not just nostalgia for her, it's opportunity.
For Gil, the 20s is a mere escape, and he comes to recognize that he will tire of it the same way he's tired of his present. His desires haven't fundamentally changed in his 20's experience, nor have the character traits that make him Gil.
It's not a perfect film by any means; there's too much disconnect between the fun in the past and the dreariness in the present.
But Midnight in Paris, despite its many flaws, has one distinct element working in its favor: pure, unabashed joy. Joy, in a Woody Allen movie. Would you believe it? This element lifts the film above the sum of its parts and makes it something special. You can say many things about Woody Allen movies, but I don't think you could ever have said, until now, that one of his movies just makes you want to get up and dance.
Allen's love for the Lost Generation comes across perfectly, and his understanding of the characters at play is impeccable. His clear distaste for Hemingway may borrow some, but it didn't bother me (I sit firmly in the Fitzgerald camp of that particular war).
But the lesson of the movie is one that bears repeating: you can long for the past all that you want, but once you remove the soft-focus lens, it looks a hell of a lot like the present.